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Telstra faces probe over technician spy claims

The Australian | July 31, 2007
Ewin Hannan

TELSTRA faces a police investigation after being accused of threatening and heavy-handed conduct by installing surveillance devices in the cars of company technicians without their genuine consent.

Victoria's Workplace Rights Advocate, Tony Lawrence, has found that Telstra might have breached the state Surveillance Devices Act by installing global positioning devices in technicians' cars without their genuine consent.

As a result of his investigation, Mr Lawrence said he intended to refer his findings to police because this was a criminal matter.

Telstra, which has denied the allegations, faces a maximum penalty of $128,916.

Mr Lawrence will also send his findings to the federal agency for workplace safety, Comcare, claiming the corporation might have breached its occupational health and safety laws as the introduction of the devices might have caused some employees high levels of stress.

In August last year, Telstra gave its employees four days' notice that it would start fitting GPS devices to technicians' vehicles. After union objections, Telstra changed its vehicle policy to make surveillance a condition of use of company vehicles and told workers their employment would be reviewed if they refused to have the devices fitted.

In response, some employees said they consented to surveillance but noted it was under duress. Telstra demanded the caveat be withdrawn, and threatened disciplinary action, including dismissal, unless unconditional consent was given.

Some employees still refused to give consent and Telstra told them they were acting in breach of their contracts of employment, their collective bargaining agreement and Telstra policy. After being warned they had one final opportunity to agree, the employees gave their consent and the devices were fitted.

Acting on a complaint by the Communications, Electrical, Plumbing Union, Mr Lawrence launched an investigation in which he found the devices were able to capture data during time when an employee was not at work, as well as during work time.

He said the employees were faced with an invidious choice of consenting to surveillance through the installation of the GPS devices or else being disciplined and potentially losing their job.

"Even if Telstra had a legal right to require the employees to submit to surveillance, I have serious concerns that the way in which the right has been exercised was unfair and inappropriate," he said.

Telstra has written to Mr Lawrence telling him that it complies with all its statutory obligations and deals fairly with its employees. Telstra denied the employees had been subject to coercion, unfair pressure or had been required to drive a vehicle fitted with a GPS device without them first providing their unconditional consent.

It said all data collected by the GPS devices would be regulated by Telstra's privacy principles.

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